143: Christian McBride, ‘Killer Joe’ (Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2012)

The Christian McBride Trio — ‘Killer Joe’

The Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2012

Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2012 (Photo: David Rubin)

I spent last week in Eilat, an eye-bendingly stunning resort tucked at the nestled on a blue sea between red mountains at the southern tip of our little country, from where you can almost touch Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It’s a pastoral setting buzzing with action – from diving with dolphins to night clubs to a great annual jazz festival. Guess which one I went for?

I don’t understand why everyone wasn’t there. Four straight nights of great music, rising stars and established luminaries, from Israelis (the new world superpower in the field) to New Yorkers to Cape Verdeans to Cameroonians. The shows go from 8 PM to 2:30 AM, followed by a jam session that lasts till—well, I don’t really know, because I never make it to the end. When I left one morning at 5:30 it was still going strong. When I press the case upon friends and acquaintances (and not a few strangers, I admit), they say, “I don’t get jazz. Eilat in August? Are you crazy?”

A Couple of Misperceptions

Eilat is way too often misperceived. One night of music did kick off at 8 PM at 42°C (almost 108°F), but I made a scientific discovery which may yet garner me a MacArthur—the third beer neutralizes the heat. It’s not that you don’t mind it. The temperature actually drops to a humane level. It’s been proven. It’s a fact. You just read it on the internet.

Almost everyone loved The Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2012 (Photo: David Rubin)

Jazz is way too often misperceived. It’s not all atonal and brainy and inaccessible. It is more often fun and intelligent and wise and witty and playful and passionate, and open to anyone who is willing to expose himself. I actually met very few obsessive, analytical, mind-numbing jazz aficionados of my own ilk at The Red Sea Jazz Festival. It’s a rich potpourri of friends and couples and families and dad&daughter and groups of young folk pre-, during- and post-army. They all had one thing in common. They were all smiling and enjoying themselves listening to fine music.

There’s nothing more alive than jazz, the quintessential meeting of creation and performance, of NOW!!!, of controlled spontaneity, of the brain and the fingers. It’s that wonderful place which presents you with the present of the present. The sound of surprise. True, the typical buff is a mature male (I fit half of that). But really, really folks, it can be great for everyone.

Everyone’s Favorite Young Bassist

Christian McBride (Photo: David Rubin)

Take for example Mr Christian McBride (b. 1972), “everyone’s favorite young bassist”. I have to admit that I didn’t know his music before the festival roster was announced. But when I started doing my homework, I was first struck three elements (beyond his very appealing, melodic, accessible musicianship): the range of formats in which he works, his good humor, and his involvement in The Tradition.

In over 15 years, Christian has released a dozen CDs as leader in almost as many settings. His last three are “Kind of Brown” (2009), a soul-jazz vibe/sax quintet outing straight from the post-bop catalog of Blue Note in the late 1960s;   “The Good Feeling” (2011), a big band of young New York stars playing his charts on original compositions; and “Conversations with Christian” (2011), a collection of duets with artists such as Sting, Billy Taylor, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chick Corea, Hank Jones and Gina Gershon (‘Chitlins and Gefiltefish’, a must-hear, with the actress jiving and playing a “funk Jew’s Harp”). All three CDs were awarded 4½ stars by All Music. Then I saw that the Downbeat Critics Poll put the latter album at #25 on its list of Jazz Album of the Year, the combo as #21 Jazz Group, McBride himself as #8 Jazz Artist, and runaway #1 bassist (ahead of Charlie Haden and Esperanza Spalding). Respectable credentials, huh?

Ulysses and The Christians

Christian Sands (Photo: David Rubin)

Christian McBride came to Eilat with two new sidemen. One I’d had the privilege to spend a memorable day with a year ago when he was with Kurt Elling’s band, the brilliant young drummer Ulysses Owens Jr, according to McBride “One of the greatest drummers on the planet, rightfully becoming the number one call for many great musicians in the world today”. The other is a 22-year old piano phenom, Christian Sands, with whom I had a long and exceptionally enjoyable chat one afternoon in the hotel. We talked about music from Sun Ra to Fats Waller to the Beach Boys. If there’s anything I enjoy more than shooting the musical bull at excessive length with a well-schooled young musician, I don’t know what it is. He’s a sweetie, and a knockout musician. Both Christian Jr (as we dubbed him) and Ulysses had the audiences buzzing throughout the festival. If the drummer had been the trio leader, they could have called themselves Ulysses and The Christians.

The Christians (Photo: David Rubin)

Jazz is Fun

And the humor? On stage, three musicians smiling. Ok, the ‘elder’ Christian had the mock-cool swagger of an ex-pro linebacker, befitting his physical and professional stature, reminiscent of Wendell Pierce (detective Bunk in ‘The Wire’, trombonist Antoine Batiste in ‘Treme’). Christian Jr and Ulysses had none of the sly irony – they were grinning ear-to-ear every moment on stage. As was every member of the audience.Christian McBride, from the stage: “Rarely do you see this anywhere else in the world, but we saw teenagers dancing to jazz, moving, screaming, running up to the stage. You guys made me feel like Paul McCartney last night. We love your enthusiasm.”

LtR: Ulysses Owens, drummer extraordinaire Obed Calvaire, Sean Jones (Photo: David Rubin)

At the jam session following the third night of the festival, Christian took over the stage. Stogie firmly ensconced in his smile, he played and sang and goofed, calling artist after artist up to the stage, from local kids including a cute, rocking 1.55m (5’1”) 18-year old blond bassist dwarfed by her instrument; via the (for us) discovery of the festival, the very fine hard bop trumpeter Sean Jones; to the legendary bassist Richard Bona. Christian had hundreds of people on their feet, shouting and dancing and grinning at 5:30 AM. “I don’t get jazz,” you say? Poppycock!

LtR: Christian McBride, Ray Brown (Photo: Richard Laird)

I tried to think of another example of such good-natured jazz. The best one I could come up with was bassist Ray Brown (1926-2002) – husband and accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald, bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell; long-time member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, manager of MJQ and Quincy Jones. In 1972 Ray Brown made a duet album I love dearly with Duke Ellington called “This One’s For Blanton”, a tribute to The Duke’s bassist from 30 years earlier. Here’s their take on Duke’s classic ‘Don’t Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’ from that set. And then in 1997 and 2001 Brown recorded two sets of bass trios(!) with John Clayton and ‘young sensation’ Christian McBride. I asked Christian about the affinity with Ray Brown, which he affirmed and seemed quite pleased that I’d noted.

Check out this piece from Christian McBride’s set at The Red Sea Jazz Festival, called ‘Easy Walker’. Does it bear any similarity to the Brown/Ellington cut? Not in the sense of cheap imitation, but in the sense of paying tribute, of growing, of standing on the shoulders of giants?

The Most Shameful Quote in Rock

For all its immediacy, there is no field of art with more reverence for The Tradition than jazz. Michael Stipe of REM said: “I’ve always referred to the Beatles as elevator music, because that’s exactly what they were… I’ve never sat down and listened to a Beatles record from beginning to end. Those guys just didn’t mean a fucking thing to me.”

Spreading laurel tree

Michael Stipe should be spanked. Jazz artists display just a bit more class. WB Yeats concludes ‘Prayer for My Daughter’ thus:

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

I guess Michael Stipe doesn’t have much use or need for Yeats, either.

Jazz and The Tradition

Ulysses Owens Jr (Photo: David Rubin)

I had the opportunity to introduce an 18-year old drummer wunderkind named Ofri Nehemia to Ulysses Owens (a sage at 26), who engaged the youngster with impressive graciousness. His advice for Ofri? Steep yourself in the jazz tradition. You can’t go out there and pound the drums. This isn’t glam rock. If you want to be a real jazz musician, you need to start in New Orleans of the 1920s and work your way through the entire corpus. I hope Ofri was listening. I assume he was. He plays with Tomer Bar, a gifted 18-year old pianist, who displayed a mature perspective and encyclopedic knowledge that made me wonder what planet these kids are being raised on. That conversation I had with Young Christian? He’s 22, and he knows everything.

Aaron Goldberg is a rightfully successful American pianist who’s played a lot with Israeli musicians. I asked him to characterize them. “An inspiring majority of the young Israeli jazz musicians coming to New York have been extremely well-trained in the mainstream bebop jazz tradition. The young icons like Omer Avital and Avishai Cohen studied Oscar Pettiford and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and all these cats, and came to New York to play bebop really well. It was only later that they began looking around their own native neighborhoods for other, outside influences. But they were schooled in the mainstream American tradition. They learn to speak the language of jazz by imitating the greats.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Festival

Benny Golson

Speaking of tradition, we have strayed from Christian McBride. In his two sets at the festival, he played a lot of material that will appear on a new CD with this trio in the fall, including Monk’s ‘I Mean You’, a Coltrane-informed ‘My Favorite Things’, a funky take on ‘Who’s Making Love’ (originally a 1968 Memphis R&B Johnny Taylor hit),  ‘East of the Sun’, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’, and our SoTW, ‘Killer Joe’.

The original ‘Killer Joe’ is a jazz standard, composed by tenor saxophonist Benny Golson (in whose band Christian McBride played on his way up) and originally performed by the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet on their 1960 album “Blues March”. The sextet includes Art Farmer (trumpet), Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner, stellar trombonist Curtis Fuller, Art’s brother Addison on bass, and Les Humphries on drums. The album contains another immortal tune, Golson’s ‘I Remember Clifford’, a threnody to Clifford Brown, the brilliant, clean-living young trumpeter who died in 1955 in a car wreck at 25, “jazz’s great tragedy”. Many considered him a greater trumpeter than even Miles Davis, not to mention Chet Baker.

Here’s the original ‘Killer Joe’ by the Farmer/Golson Jazztet. And just for good measure, here’s a video of Benny Golson playing it. And here’s Manhattan Transfer. And here’s Quincy Jones. And here’s the Christian McBride trio, live from Eilat.

A Great Day in Harlem (Photo: Art Kane)

Benny Golson (b. 1929) grew up in Philadelphia, playing with the likes of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, and Red Rodney. He’s still touring today! Talk about a living legend. He was one of 57 notable jazz musicians photographed in 1958 for Esquire magazine in a portrait that became known as ‘A Great Day in Harlem’. A fine documentary film was made about the shooting of the photo. Benny Golson is one of the four musicians there still alive.

Do you remember the plot of Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal”? The Tom Hanks character is a citizen of a fictitious Eastern European nation who is trapped at JFK after his country dissolves and he is left stateless. Do you remember his mission? His father was a jazz buff who discovered ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ in a Hungarian newspaper in 1958, and vowed to get an autograph of all the 57 jazz musicians featured on the photograph. He succeeded in obtaining 56, but he died before he could finish his collection. Finally Viktor (Tom) is allowed to return home, but refuses to do so, because he has vowed to travel to New York to obtain the autograph, and so complete his father’s collection. Employees of the airport help sneak him out, he goes to the hotel where the saxophonist is playing, listens to a rehearsal, gets the autograph, and returns home, mission accomplished.

The saxophonist? Benny Golson, of course.

So jazz fans take The Tradition seriously. Even sons of Krakozhian jazz fans take it seriously. Budding Israeli musicians take it seriously. Rising stars in New York take it seriously. Everyone’s favorite young bassist takes it seriously.

Because all that seriousness, with enough heat and beer and energy and smiles, can lead to a lot of great music, and to a lot of fun.

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